The Nature of the Anabaptist Church
By: Gregory S. Neal
The Anabaptists of the sixteenth century formed their Church within a crucible of conflict between the precepts of Scripture and the evolved traditions of the Roman Catholic Church. They sought to root both their doctrine and their liturgical practice within the confines of what they believed to be prescribed by the New Testament. This resulted in an attempt to elevate the scriptures over and above -- and in a detrimental manner to -- the traditions of the Church, producing a rather sharp break with even the new Lutheran and Reformed movements, which they believed were accommodating to church tradition. The use of scripture in an attempt to regulate even everyday living forced the break to become pronounced on several issues, including many ethical and moral ones, but none more than on the nature of the sacraments of Baptism and the Holy Eucharist.
The Anabaptists understood the Church as being composed of people who had been baptized as believers. Infant baptism was denounced as “a senseless, blasphemous abomination, contrary to all Scriptures . . . “ (p. 128). In response to this position, the question might arise as to the eternal fate of those infants and very young children who die before they are even capable of having faith. According to the Anabaptists, such are saved through “the suffering of Christ. . .” (p. 128). The work of Christ, not baptism, is the instrument of salvation for those old enough to make a faith-decision; for those too young to profess their faith, salvation is through Christ’s suffering. This serves to make membership in the Body of Christ dependent upon faith, alone, and reduces baptism to a role which merely “signifies that, by faith and the blood of Christ, sins have been washed away. . .” (p. 127). The Biblical support for their position on the importance of faith over baptism appears to come from an ordinance interpretation of Romans 5 and 6, and it is through such similar interpretations of scripture that further positions on practice and doctrine are supported.
Their opposition to the Eucharistic liturgy, the “Great Thanksgiving,” -- and, specifically, the St. John Chrysostom Mass -- is more an opposition to the additions to the scriptural account made within the liturgy than it is an opposition to Holy Communion itself. Communion’s nature is, indeed, altered from a consecrated sacrament to just a memorial meal, done in remembrance of the meal referenced in the synoptic Gospels and in 1 Corinthians 11:17-34. Their demands that its observance be frequent, in the community of baptized believers and not in private, and with strict adherence to the words of institution found in the Biblical accounts, are noteworthy in that they point to the Anabaptist self-understanding as a community of the faithful -- i.e., members through faith (pp.124-126). Relative to these questions concerning the Eucharist, Baptism, and the nature of membership within the community of faith, is the Anabaptist concept of the role of the ministry within the life of the church and, most especially, the role of each member in the ministry of the Church.
The Anabaptist understanding of Christian ministry is rooted in the Protestant conception of “the Priesthood of Believers," while lacking that exact terminology. While they do have an ordained clergy which is supported by the Church in full-time ministry, pastoral care, preaching and teaching the Gospel of Jesus Christ to and for the community of faith, this concept is neither exclusive of the congregation, nor is it established independent of congregation. The Church membership has direct responsibility for, as well as to, its clergy ... and the clergy can, and are, answerable to the community which calls them into service. The clergy perform the traditional functions of preaching the Word, pronouncing the words of institution at Holy Communion, performing Christian Baptism, and so forth, but they are not the only ones who are authorized to carry out these duties. Indeed, it is quite clear from the accounts of the interrogations of Wurzlburger that preaching and teaching (witnessing), and baptism were activities that any baptized believer was authorized to perform (pp. 137-142). In addition to this, the letter to Thomas Muntzer makes it clear that the administration of Holy Communion should be devoid of all sacerdotal qualities:
The essence of the community is, here again, of critical importance. It is not the minister which performs a priestly act of consecration over the elements of bread and wine, but the community of the faithful when they gather at the table of the Lord. Like Baptism, the Eucharist does not save, nor does it function as a Means of Grace, but it does serve to provide a sense of unified community for the Church -- a sense of oneness with each other, and with Christ Jesus, which comes through the obedience of partaking in the manner which Christ commanded. This sense of community, combined with an understating of a sinful world as something to be avoided, resulted in the concept of “separation,” in which the Church is called upon to pull away from dealings with the secular world and to hold itself separate from every vestige of evil by adhering to good as found within the Gospel.
If ever thou desirest to serve it [communion], we should wish that it would be done without priestly garment and vestment of the Mass, without singing, without addition. (p. 126)
It is this dualistic view of the things -- good vs evil, Church vs world -- that eventually resulted in the binding together of these communities of faith into small, fairly well contained units which survived extreme social, political, and moral persecution. In being separate from the evil world, Anabaptists were called upon to shun personal, private possessions and all works of violence. Regarding the shunning of possession, they were called to partake of the material goods of the community, just as the community partakes of spiritual goods in Christ. This serves to highlight the truth that, just as the individual is dependent on the community for survival in spiritual matters, so too in things of this world, “for they are not their own. . .” (p. 145). In relation to the question of non-violence, this is simply an extension of the concept of separation. When separated from the evil world, and under the Gospel of Christ, a Christian should abide by the word and example of Christ. This word and example is understood to expressly forbid the use of force in the pursuit of goals. Additionally, the separation would, by its very nature, require avoidance of force since, because of the separation, there is to be little or no dealing-with the evil world (p. 133-135).
A community of believers which separates itself from the evil of this world in order to live in community, worships God in Christ through the guidance of the Scriptures, and avoids the traditions of the evil Catholic Church, exemplifies the nature of Church for Anabaptists. The community of believers becomes the Church of Jesus Christ through a confession of faith, and not through infant baptism. It shuns things sacerdotal and things of this world, separating and coming together for the common good through a sharing of things spiritual as well as of things material. It is a living concept of the church, one which looks to the community for its validation and not to a priestly class or ministerial head, although such offices do, to some degree, exist. It a community which views its interpretation of scripture as primary to its foundation, and, as such, is the one which finds within itself the core and life of the New Testament Church.
Hillerbrand, Hans J. (ed) The Protestant Reformation. New York: Harper & Row, Publishers, 1968.
© 1990 Gregory S. Neal*
All Rights Reserved
*This paper was written in 1990 for a course in Reformation Church History which Rev. Neal took while in the Masters Degree program at Duke University.
As a popular teacher, preacher, and retreat leader, Dr. Neal is known for his ability to translate complex theological concepts into common, everyday terms. HIs preaching and teaching ministry is in demand around the world, and much of his work can be found on this website. He is the author of several books, including Grace Upon Grace: Sacramental Theology and the Christian Life, which is in its second edition, and Seeking the Shepherd's Arms: Reflections from the Pastoral Side of Life, a work of devotional literature. Both of these books are currently available from Amazon.com.